How To Not Suck At Customer Development

Over the past ~2 years, I’ve been working almost exclusively on customer development and growth at Mom Trusted, with my consulting clients, and at Workhorse. In 2015 alone, I’ve had upwards of 100 customer development conversations. Along the way, I’ve learned a few lessons, some from personal mistakes and a few from observing others.

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                                  All image credit goes to Scott Adams

 

Here are some of the pitfalls to avoid if you’re trying to learn something about your potential customers, instead of just paying lip service to the “customer development” buzzword.

Being Scared To Talk To Customers

This is, by far, the most unforgivable customer development sin. It’s impossible to get an accurate sense of reality without understanding, in extreme detail, the motivations and fears of your target customer. This fear of customer interaction lies in the fact that most founders (I’ve fallen into this trap in the past) have a mental picture of what their product/experience looks like and don’t want to burst that bubble. Maybe they also have a mental picture of what success will look like after they sell their company to Yahoo! for $100 million and don’t want to ruin that fantasy world by finding out that customers don’t want what they’re selling. Everyone has their own reasons for being scared to put themselves out there but this is the most dangerous sin on this list.

Putting A Layer Between You And The Customer

This is one I’ll never understand. I’ve come across founders, that for whatever reason, put a layer (or two) between them and potential customers. I don’t know if this stems from shyness or bubble bursting syndrome or what, but the net effect is that these founders always hear what their customers want or are frustrated with from some third party source. This is a great way to get incomplete or even plain wrong information, since the people who make up the layers (presumably employees or contractors) will try to tell you what you want to hear.

By not hearing any feedback directly, it’s easy to delude yourself into thinking things should be a certain way with no real evidence. In contrast, some of the best founders – including Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Steve Jobs, (Apple), and Tony Hsieh (Zappos) – correspond with their customers directly on a regular basis, even after their companies became multi-billion dollar Goliaths. Sorry, 10 person startup founders – there’s no excuse for not talking to customers directly.

Not Empathizing With The Customer

Empathy is such an underrated part of customer development. The problem with purely asking questions and using the responses to build your model of the target customer is that sometimes people don’t always verbalize the underlying emotional need they’re trying to express. For example, the success of Facebook can be very much attributed to people’s loneliness and desire to stay connected. But very few people would ever say that they use Facebook because they’re lonely. They would say they want to “stay in touch with family and friends” or “share important life events with people close to them”.

Customer development is all about building a complete model of the target customer. To build that complete model, you absolutely need to know the following:

  • What gets them out of bed in the morning?
  • What do they care about?
  • Who is their customer?
  • How are they measuring success?
  • What are they motivated by?
  • What keeps them up at night?

Empathy isn’t really something you can fake. Customers can tell if you’re just phoning it in and don’t really care about solving their problem. Be genuine and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by what they share with you.

Not Even Knowing Who Your Customer Is

This sounds dumb – how can you not know who your customer is? It’s actually a really common issue for B2B startups at the earliest stages. For example, imagine you have a software tool to help salespeople. If you’re taking a top-down approach where you sell to the VP of Sales and sign an enterprise contract, then your customer is not the junior salesperson, it’s the VP of Sales. If you’re taking the bottom-up approach and getting individual salespeople to use your tool and then drive adoption through their organization, your customer is the junior salesperson. You can see the end result of these alternative approaches by looking at the difference in UX between Salesforce and a tool like DocSend. To me (not a VP of Sales), DocSend looks awesome. Salesforce, on the other hand, does not. I’m not the target customer though – with the success Salesforce has had, it’s pretty obvious that their target customer likes them a lot.

By properly defining the customer, you can start to get accurate answers to your customer development questions, which is the first step to building a product that solves a problem for someone.

Closing Thoughts

 

Every company, whether it’s a startup or a Fortune 500 corporation, is 100% dependent on its customer. Having a thorough understanding of a customer, their life, and their motivations is the only way to create something they actually want. Remember: while potential customers usually have a fixed need they want fulfilled, which can be physical (for example, hunger) or emotional (loneliness), the form of the solution may change over time. The only way you’ll be able to understand the need and the form of the solution is by truly empathizing with your customers’ pain. It’s a skill that takes practice but it starts with something super simple: Ask questions and actually listen to what your customers tell you!

Failure: The Secret To Becoming Mentally Tough

Michael Jordan on failure

I’ve been noodling on a theory for awhile related to mental toughness. The theory is this: There‘s a huge difference in mental strength between those who’ve been “failure-tested” and those who haven’t. Failure-tested is a bit of a vague term so let me explain what I mean before diving in further.

When I say failure-tested, I’m not just talking about someone who has started a company and failed. That’s just one example. It can also include people who’ve gone through devastating injuries or accidents, recovered from an addiction, gone through a divorce, or any number of tragedies. The key to being failure-tested is not the event that constitutes “failure”, but the effect the event has on personal identity.

For example, when a football player gets an ACL tear and has to sit out for 12 months, are they still a football player? Of course they are but 12 months of not doing what you think you were born to do can shatter personal identity. If someone’s personal identity revolves around a company they started and that company fails, their personal identity is destroyed. The same thing happens if they self-identify as a husband and their marriage dissolves. My hypothesis is that true failure (and the negative mental effects associated with it, like depression) only occurs when someone’s personal identity is destroyed.

I started thinking about this as I read Sam Sheridan’s excellent books on martial arts: A Fighter’s Heart and The Fighter’s Mind. Sam talks about how the best thing about MMA (mixed martial arts) is that it allows you to use whatever style you want, from muay thai, to kung fu, to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and see if you can make your opponent “submit” (AKA “tap” or quit). When someone submits in MMA, the fight is over. It’s great because it makes it more unlikely for serious injuries to occur (since you have the option of quitting) but to a fighter, the act of submitting means that your opponent has total power over you – they could kill you, if it were a street fight.

When someone is forced to submit during an actual MMA fight, it can shatter the fighter’s world view and make it nearly impossible to get back in the cage, which by definition, requires you to think you can win. Yet unlike boxing, most of the best MMA fighters aren’t undefeated, so how is that possible? The answer is that these top fighters can take the mental beatdown that comes with failure, pick themselves back up, and improve for next time. It’s more than simply getting back up – these fighters actually get better after these losses. The losses push them further for next time.

How does this all tie into someone being failure-tested? When someone has experienced the pain that comes with their personal identity being shattered and comes back from it to take another shot at life, they’ve been failure-tested. I’ve noticed this a ton in the startup world – founders who’ve failed and try again are often some of the most mentally tough people in the industry (and most of them have failed at some point). You may argue with his methods but Uber CEO Travis Kalanick is a great example of this. At one point before Uber, “Kalanick was filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and sleeping in his parents’ house”. Uber is not Kalanick’s first company and he has definitely been failure-tested, probably in more ways than we are even aware of.

An even better example than Kalanick: When Elon Musk was at Paypal, he couldn’t afford an apartment so he lived in the office and showered at the local YMCA. Unrelated tangent: I used to work out at that same YMCA when I lived in the Bay Area (not during the same time period obviously). The trials for Musk didn’t end there though. He later invested ~100% of his (now massive) net worth into Tesla and SpaceX. At one point, he had to borrow money from friends to pay rent, despite being mega-rich on paper because Tesla couldn’t make payroll unless he put in his last $3 million into the company. Talk about being failure-tested – his life could’ve been a rags-to-riches-to-rags story. Instead, he’s now one of the most accomplished human beings of all time.

It’s no coincidence that there’s a large number of successful people who went through rough childhoods. Those early experiences shaped the way they would respond to difficulty for their lives.

So how does all this apply to you? There’s a lot I could say about this but overall it all sums up to one thing: take risks and put yourself in a position where you’re testing yourself. This all depends on you but could include things like:

  • Run further than you’ve ever run before
  • Lift something heavier than you’ve ever lifted
  • Start a new hobby
  • Try a new sport
  • Ask out that girl or guy that you’ve been afraid to
  • Write something

Yes, trying something new and testing yourself is going to feel awful….at first. Pretty quickly though, you’ll get used to it. Being frustrated is a great sign that you’re out of your comfort zone and on your way to growth.

I think there’s a lot more to say about this topic in many different areas – especially hiring and personal relationships but I’ll save that for future posts. This is already too long (that’s what she said….).

Russell Wilson, Adversity, and Stoicism

“Why didn’t they run it from the 1 with Marshawn?”

It’s something nearly everyone has wondered aloud in the past few days. For those of you who’ve been living under a rock, here’s what happened: the Patriots had a monstrous comeback in the 4th quarter to go up by 4. The Seahawks then stormed down the field thanks to some crazy plays like this one. They were down 4, had the ball at the 1 yard line with 1 timeout, 26 seconds to go, and had the best running back in the league in their backfield. On the next play, they decided to pass, it was intercepted and that sealed the game. The Patriots won, Tom Brady/Bill Belichick get their 4th title, and the Seahawks are left wondering what happened.

For most of us, having anything like that happen, let alone on the world’s biggest stage, would be absolutely devastating. What shocked me the most since then, is Russell Wilson’s reaction. Here’s a quote from his press conference on Tuesday (less than 48 hours after the game was over):

“I always kind of write down stuff and I wrote down this, ‘Let’s keep the focus on the future, not what’s behind.’  I think that’s a really, really important thought in terms of staying positive.  What can I do for the next opportunity that I have?  What can I learn?  Good or bad — if we had won the Super Bowl or if we had lost in the fashion that we had.  I would still be thinking the same way and I think keeping that consistent approach to life in general and this is a lot bigger than obviously, losing the game is tough but any life circumstance — losing my dad.  What do I do next?  How can I learn from the lessons of losing him?  And obviously losing a game is completely different than losing a family member. Those are the type of things that I think about.  That’s how I try to prepare my mind for the next opportunity that I have — the next thing that I have in my life that comes up.”

That’s an incredible quote, especially given the circumstances. He doesn’t throw his coaches under the bus. He doesn’t blame anything on his receiver (even though analysts say the receiver deserved a lot of the blame on that play). He looks at what he can learn and how he can apply it to future situations. I don’t know about you but when the Packers lost to the Seahawks a couple weeks ago (a game I wasn’t playing in, in case you were wondering), it took me a good ten days to even want to think about football again. And I’m just a fan! Wilson is already looking at what he can learn, less than 48 hours after what will surely be one of the biggest missed opportunities of his career. His capacity to handle adversity and learn from it has just left me in awe since reading that quote yesterday.

Dealing with adversity is something I’ve been trying to work on over the past few months. Packers game aside, one thing that’s been helpful is Stoicism. There’s probably a super technical definition of Stoicism online somewhere but essentially what it teaches is that we can’t control external events or the results of our actions. We can only control the actions we make and our reactions to external events. What this philosophical belief system results in is doing the best you can and then letting the chips fall as they may. There’s a lot more to it but that’s the gist. It’s been amazing in delivering peace of mind so far but clearly, I have a long way to go in my understanding and practice of Stoicism.

I have no idea if Russell Wilson considers himself Stoic or not but he’s been doing a great job of demonstrating the ideals over the past few days. His post-game reaction has shown me how much further I have to go in my ability to handle the ups and downs of my life, which are quite honestly nothing compared to what an NFL quarterback faces. And in turn, the pressure an NFL QB faces is fun and games (literally) compared to what someone living in poverty or under the rule of ISIS would face every single day. It’s all about perspective.

By the way, if you want to read more about Stoicism, definitely check out Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. If you read that and enjoy it, then pick up Letters From A Stoic by Seneca and The Discourses by Epictetus. And in case you thought all Stoics are ancient, some modern stoics include Bill Clinton, Arianna Huffington, and Ryan Holiday.

Most Business Books Are Unnecessary

Most business books are unnecessary to read if you’re reading to learn something. When I say unnecessary, I don’t mean the information provided in them isn’t helpful. I mean that there’s nothing you can find in those books that couldn’t be learned from a couple of blog posts. I notice this more with newer books than older ones but that’s probably because the older books that have survived and are read today actually have some worthwhile ideas.

Most business books simply repeat ideas that have already been talked about 100 times elsewhere. Now that’s actually fine – IF the book expands on those ideas with longer anecdotes and examples OR it organizes the information in a way that makes it more accessible to the reader.

For example, Traction does a great job of organizing information in an accessible format. Everything contained in Traction can be found online from various sources. The real value of the book and having it available as a reference is that it pieces together information in a coherent format that saves you time and energy. Last time I checked on Amazon, Traction cost $10.64 for the hardcover edition. Would I pay $10.64 to have this set of resources on my desk any time I want? Hell yea – and it’s sitting on my desk right now.

Another example of a business book worth reading is Ben Horowitz’s The Hard Thing About Hard Things. Ben’s been in the trenches with a few companies and has some amazing stories to share – I can’t recommend this book enough if you’re a founder or have any thoughts of becoming a startup employee or founder someday. The book is about 300 pages long but when I finished, I found myself wishing it was longer because the examples and stories were so good.

Benedict Evans and Chris Dixon have some pretty entertaining tweets about business books and I think they’re spot on, Benedict’s quote in particular. Business books make “business people” (whatever that means) feel productive and good about their reading time. Kind of like most self-help books, they’re written in a way that makes sense and has you nodding your head until you actually think about the application and you realize that you just read a bunch of fluff.

Last week, I read Seth Godin’s Permission Marketing, which was written way back in 1999. It’s a smart book and was definitely revolutionary when it came out but probably 75% of it was unnecessary. The entire 200+ page book is about the concept of getting permission from consumers to market to them with the prime example being email newsletter signups. Solid concept but not nearly enough detailed examples to warrant 200 pages. I saw the same thing while reading The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. Another great concept but again, too much fluff.

While you shouldn’t categorically reject business books, be careful which ones you invest your time in. Often, you’re better off spending your time reading books about history, philosophy, psychology, or biographies if you’re reading to learn something. You’ll find that those are usually more relevant to solving your problems than business books are.

 

The 10 Most Influential Books I Read in 2014

In 2014, I made it a goal to re-dedicate myself to reading. I read a ton growing up but for the past 6-8 years, I probably read less than 10 books per year outside of class. The books I recommend below were all personally transformative for me in one way or another. As with any book, the influence the books below had on me was based on a combination of things including what was going on in my own personal and professional life as well as what was happening in the world at the time.

This is not a ranking list so the books are presented in no particular order.

Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig

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I really, really wish I had read this book before starting my undergrad degree in engineering. Throughout college, I felt frustrated about the theoretical focus of engineering education. I fall more on the visual learner side of the spectrum so learning about chemical engineering was particularly difficult (it’s hard to picture molecular interactions). The times I felt most comfortable were when a previously discussed concept was physically shown in a lab class. As my friends from college are very much aware of, I was pretty outspoken about my frustration with the curriculum and the way engineering was being taught.

This book dives right into the engineering education issue and so much more. It’s told in a narrative format about a father-son, cross-country motorcycle journey that’s filled with flashbacks and self-discovery, but most importantly, goes into the philosophy of the relationship between art, science, and practical application. I have to credit this book for finally “connecting the dots” for me between the classroom engineering concepts I learned at CMU and the real world around me.

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

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This was a quick but very influential read. Anyone who has tried to build, write, or create anything will appreciate Pressfield’s book, which basically boils down to how to recognize and conquer The Resistance, something we’ve all felt when doing something necessary but difficult.

Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All by Tom and David Kelley

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There aren’t many people more creative than the Kelley brothers, who helped found and lead IDEO, the world’s leading design consultancy. The biggest takeaway for me was that creativity is something we all possess. Some of us just lose confidence in our creativity while growing up. Perhaps we were told we can’t draw or that we were analytical or that we were athletes and so stopped exploring our “creative side”. I read this in tandem with Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and found the two to be very much related. This book is the reason I decided to take my first acting class and then helped me find the confidence to think I could be decent at it.

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

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Can’t believe I didn’t read this book until this year. If you’ve had moments of doubt about your life’s direction (whether personal or professional), this book will literally feel as if it’s written for you. Read it.

Side note about Paulo Coelho: some people get put off by the religious (Christian) nature of his writing. Whether you consider yourself religious or not (I’m personally not religious at all), his writing is still inspirational and provides guidance with the existential questions of life.

What’s Mine Is Yours by Rachel Bostrom

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I’ve gotten really interested in the sharing economy this year (also known as the 1099 economy or the Uber economy) and this was the best book I found about the young industry. The book was written in 2010 (before the whole Uber craze really took off) so it’s amazing that so many of the predictions in here are spot on. Bostrom’s analysis and thinking around the whole space are great in terms of giving you a complete picture into the trends and forces causing “on-demand” and “sharing” services to explode in popularity today. The coolest takeaway from her analysis of the sharing economy: it’s really a move away from the unnatural “largeness” of 20th century corporations and a return to the more local economies of the past (and hopefully future).

If you’re interested in the sharing economy, you HAVE to read this book.

If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler by Italo Calvino

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Hands down the most creative book I read all year and possibly in my entire life. The book has 10 “first chapters” of stories intertwined with a love story involving…you! It sounds bizarre but it’s so engaging and I wasn’t able to put it down once I started.

The book was originally written in Italian (Italo Calvino was Italian, in case you couldn’t guess that from his name) and reading this really made me wonder what, if anything, was lost in translation. The English version is so great, I can’t even imagine how good the original was.

Zero To One by Peter Thiel

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Whether or not you’ve read the Blake Masters class notes from Thiel’s Stanford class, this is an interesting and important read. Regardless of if you agree with his politics, there are few people out there like Thiel and his contrarian thinking definitely gets you thinking outside the box. I personally don’t agree with 100% of his views but his thinking is presented in a readable, accessible manner that had (and still has) me looking at the world with a renewed desire to solve big, meaningful problems

Incerto Series by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

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Taleb is a genius, plain and simple. I wrote about his work earlier this year and his writing has been hugely influential in crystallizing my thoughts on risk. Just as importantly, his work is hilariously written and somehow manages to make 3 books about a “boring” topic like risk impossible to put down.

While I chose to feature The Black Swan, the other 2 books in the series are Fooled by Randomness and Antifragile. They can be read in any order but I would recommend starting with The Black Swan, then moving to Antifragile (my favorite in the series) and then finishing with Fooled by Randomness if you’re still interested.

Warning about Taleb: He’s EXTREMELY opinionated, which leads to some amazing and entertaining writing but can also piss some people off. If you read his books and end up falling into the pissed off group…can’t say I didn’t warn you.

World War Z by Max Brooks

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Directly related to Taleb’s work is World War Z. The zombie infection outbreak is a great, thankfully fictional, example of a Black Swan event. I also happened to read this around the time of the ebola breakout so that probably played a part in making this so memorable for me.

I was a huge fan of the movie too but the book is very different. The movie was told from one person’s point of view while the book is basically a series of recollections from various points in time during the outbreak and war, with no central character.

The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius and Letters from a Stoic by Seneca

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This year I got interested in learning more about Stoic philosophy. I’ve never been one to “sweat the small stuff” so Stoicism made intuitive sense from the beginning. The coolest thing to me was reading Meditations and literally seeing a Roman emperor struggle with the same things I do on a daily basis – namely, knowing that the world isn’t perfect and adapting my attitude to make sense of and operate in that world. Learning about Stoicism also played a big part in helping me come up with my morning routine.

 

So those were the top recommendations from my 2014 reading. If any of these books look interesting to you, definitely make the time to read them. Also, if you have a Goodreads account, let’s connect there.

I’m always on the lookout for more to read so definitely send your recommendations my way!

 

When Free Stuff Online Becomes Dangerous

Ask anyone if they want to get something valuable without giving up a single penny in return and they will definitely say “yes”. It’s a human trait – we really love free stuff.

On the Internet, we’ve gotten used to getting products and tools for free. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. Some companies are using a freemium model where they give away part of their product for free to entice you to buy the full product. Game companies do this all the time as do companies like Dropbox. Other companies give away their product for free in an effort to build an audience and sell ads – Google, Facebook, and Twitter for example. Although the ads can get annoying sometimes, these are all perfectly acceptable business models.

Where things get more dangerous and scary is when tools that involve sensitive information, such as healthcare, personal finance, or security are given out completely free. I want to be clear here: I’m not talking about freemium or free updates. I’m talking about 100%, no strings attached, free.

Why is this dangerous? Because companies need to make money and the easiest way for these “free” products to do it is by selling your personal data. In its most innocent form, this simply involves lead generation – think Mint.com and all the credit card offers you receive through their site after making an account. At a more insidious level, personally identifying or user activity data could be sold to third parties.

Don’t believe me? StopDataMining.Me was featured in Lifehacker last year identifying 50 data brokers who store and re-sell your personal data to others. They all have ways to opt-out but let’s be honest: how many of us even know the names of all the companies reselling our data? Even worse, you have to opt-out from each site, one by one. The problem is so widespread that The Federal Trade Commission issued a report earlier this year recommending that Congress require data brokers be more transparent and give consumers greater control over their personal information. Not much has happened with that so far but the recommendation by the FTC is a step in the right direction.

At the individual level, there’s not much we can do about all this except be aware of it. I’m not saying we should stop using free tools. Just be sure to think through the business model of whatever tool you’re deciding to use. My one recommendation would be to opt for paid tools and services for things that involve sensitive data – the extra few dollars per month is worth it.

How Are Some People So Productive?

The thing that impresses me the most about successful people is the sheer volume and quality of their work. How can someone accomplish so much in the same 24 hour days that you and I have?

Who are some of these people I’m so impressed with? Well how about Ryan Holiday, who was simultaneously Marketing Director at American Apparel, blogging extensively, and writing high quality books. Or James Altucher, who has started multiple successful companies, ran a hedge fund, spilled his soul on his personal blog, wrote several of books, runs a very successful podcast, and is also an angel investor. Or my good friend Justin Mares, who simultaneously scaled Airbrake as Director of Revenue (which led to an acquisition by Rackspace) and co-wrote Traction (which I highly recommend by the way). People like Ryan, James, and Justin inspire me.

I try not to even think about the productivity required by Elon Musk, who is CEO of both Tesla Motors and SpaceX. He’s Iron Man though so I guess he doesn’t count.

So how are these people so productive? Here is what I’ve observed:

  1. Routine: Productive people have a routine that they use to get themselves in the zone. I’ll be writing a lot more about this in the future as it’s a personal interest of mine but for now let’s just say that getting “in the zone” is not random.
  2. Time Management: By this I don’t mean OCD behavior like scheduling every second of your day including bathroom breaks. I’m talking about avoiding the endless Facebook/Twitter/Yahoo/YouTube/Quora/Buzzfeed time waste loops. They seem like short breaks but end up taking 15-20 minutes each time and eat up huge chunks of your day.
  3. Inspired: Productive people simply don’t hate their work. In fact, it’s usually the opposite – they actually enjoy working on their craft.
  4. Student Mentality: All these people have a certain humility about them and in spite of their success, maintain a humble student attitude. They are always learning and more importantly are always open to learning.
  5. Gratitude: it seems counterintuitive but productivity requires being in a healthy state of mind, which means being thankful for your life while still striving for improvement. I’ve seen people I admire consistently practicing gratitude and adding gratitude to my morning routine earlier this year was the best thing I’ve ever done for my mental health.

Here’s some simple math: if someone has just 1 more hour of productivity per day than the average person, at the end of the year, they’ll have 365 hours of extra work. After 10 years, that’s 3650 extra hours. Over a 30 year career, they have a 10,950 hour advantage. According to Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, 10,000 hours of practice is the key to mastery so based on the math, someone with an extra hour per day will be a master of 1 more skill than the average person. If that skill is something valuable – you can see why that makes a difference. I would make the argument that highly productive individuals actually have a 4-5 hour per day advantage over the average person, which would mean mastery of an additional skill happens in 6-8 years instead of 30. While I’m not a huge fan of Gladwell’s work and disagree on a few things, the conclusion is the same: the extra hours compound into a real advantage over time.

This is one of my favorite topics to learn more about so if you’ve observed any other techniques or use something yourself, definitely let me know in the comments or contact me directly.

The One Thing They Don’t Tell You About Growth Marketing

True or False: Accomplishing your goal 30% of the time is good.

The answer: It depends. If you’re in school and only getting 30% of the answers correct, it’s probably time to stop reading this post and go hit the books. But if you’re a baseball player and have a batting average of 0.300, then you’re one of the better players.

Growth marketing, especially for startups, is more similar to baseball than it is to school. You’ll try tons of different tactics and strategies to grow – the phrase we use is “Throw s**t against the wall” – and most of it won’t improve your growth rate at all. Of the few things that do work, most of them won’t be scalable and allow you to grow 10X. Finding a scalable growth tactic that works is a bit like trying to find a needle in a haystack, except in this case, you don’t even know if there is a needle hidden in the haystack.

So if most things don’t work, how do you find the things that do? By doing lots of customer development and experimentation, which requires a completely different mentality than schoolwork. This was the most difficult leap for me – realizing that my answers were going to be wrong more often than they were right – and being OK with that. It’s hard to overstate the difficulty of this mental switch. We go to school for 12 years and then years of college and/or grad school with the “I should always get the right answer” mentality, which is counterproductive to being a good growth marketer.

The best way I found to handle this leap is to think like a scientist. I start with a theory, for example a new pricing strategy, and then develop an experiment and hypothesis to test that theory in the real world. Testing can only be done by putting your idea in front of customers/users. I try to pick a big enough sample size to make the experiment relevant (sample size depends on what you’re doing/selling) but keep it small enough to where I can speak with the customers individually to learn why they are saying yes or no. Unfortunately, thinking like a scientist is not taught in high school or undergrad, even if you major in science or engineering. It’s something you have to develop on your own.

The last piece of advice I’ll give on this is that successful growth requires thinking outside the box to find something that clicks (terrible pun…). At Mom Trusted, we experimented with phone, direct mail, email, fax, social marketing, SEM, SEO, conferences, and many many more tactics (with lots of iterations in each of those categories) in order to find the channels that worked. Other companies, like Eat24, have gone even more outside the box by advertising on overlooked web properties (including porn sites). All of these tactics were figured out through data-informed (not data driven) experimentation.

Thinking about growth marketing like a scientist is a skill and like any skill, it can be developed through practice and study, with practice being more useful than study. If growth is something you’re interested in, I strongly recommend getting real world experience as soon as possible.

 

Deep Knowledge

It’s so easy these days to think you’re an expert at something. Read a few articles about a topic, look at a few Quora questions, maybe watch a YouTube video – and bingo, you’re an “expert”. Unfortunately, even though knowledge is more accessible today than ever before in human history, deep knowledge still takes the same amount of time and effort as it did before.

Maybe the reason I’m thinking about this today is that I made the mistake of watching the news for a few minutes this morning (blame my parents – they had it on). With election day coming up, they were trotting out source after source – all of whom had mostly no idea what they were talking about. For example, they brought out Richard Branson to explain the Virgin Galactic crash. Sorry, Richard Branson may be the head of Virgin but he’s not an engineer – he doesn’t understand what went wrong. Sure he can regurgitate talking points but that’s about it. The worst part is that people are going to watch that interview and walk away feeling like they’re “experts” on what went wrong – and share that opinion with others. You’ll see the same thing if you watch MSNBC/Fox News/CNN and listen to someone talking about any topic – healthcare, jobs, the economy, etc.

Reading a few Wikipedia articles is certainly better than knowing nothing about a subject but it doesn’t replace true learning. That’s why I recommend books over any other learning source (except real world experience of course). The knowledge necessary to write a great book about one topic requires such deep subject matter mastery – it just doesn’t compare to any other communication medium. The only exception I’ve seen to this rule are bloggers who write just as deeply as great authors. The only difference is they distribute their content for free on the Internet in short chunks (aka blog posts).

Deep knowledge takes time, effort, and experience, which is why I don’t consider myself an “expert” in anything yet. With some luck, maybe I’ll be close in 10 years.

Staying Mentally Stable On The Startup Rollercoaster

Lately, there’s been some much needed talk in the startup community about the mental health effects of the constant ups and downs that come with being involved in early stage companies. The toll can be especially taxing on founders – take a look at the notes Brad Feld received from founders after he wrote his illuminating “Founder Suicides” blog post earlier this month.

The media usually portrays famous founders as Supermen/Superwomen – which makes “regular” founders feel inferior and inadequate. This is very much related to the “crushing it” culture that has gotten so rampant. When founders are asked how things are going, it’s incredibly rare to hear an answer other than one of the many variations of “crushing it”. With more people like Brad Feld talking about mental health, I’m hoping that honesty will become more common, but maybe that’s wishful thinking.

Having been involved in a couple startups over the past few years, I’ve been through some awesome experiences and also through shitty, terrible things that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. Staying mentally healthy in a rollercoaster environment like that is a huge challenge and to be honest, is something I’ve struggled with at various times in my life. Over the past few months, I’ve taken a more active approach to keeping a healthy mindset. Below are some scientifically untested techniques I’ve been using with success so far to keep my work problems in perspective:

 

Read Books:

I read a lot of books growing up but for some reason I pretty much stopped once I got to college. In 2014, I rediscovered my love for reading and it’s been great. Most importantly, I’ve found it’s a perfect escape for my overactive work brain. When I watch TV or a movie, my brain doesn’t have to do any work and continues drifting towards work. When I’m reading a book, my imagination gets involved and my brain stops thinking about work for awhile.

Stay Physically Healthy/Exercise/Go Outside:

When you’re already not in a great mental state and then something goes wrong physically, you’re just asking for disaster. Re-committing to my health after some issues in early 2014 has helped my mental game so much.

Going out into nature is really helpful to me as well. There’s something about being in nature that just gives perspective and makes problems feel insignificant.

Get a Hobby:

Doing something outside of work gives you two things:

  1. Your brain gets a break from thinking about the same problems – which actually helps you solve them.
  2. You make friends outside the startup bubble

I started taking acting lessons in April and it’s been great. I’ve met people who live in a completely different universe from the startup community, which is enlightening. It’s also given me insight on my own emotions and habits that I wasn’t previously aware of. I started this hobby so randomly: I took a four week Acting for Non-Actors class to improve my sales skills and ended up liking it so much that I started training more seriously. Most importantly, it lets me shut off the analytical part of my brain for awhile and do something different.

Stay Close With Your Family and Friends:

This is listed last but it’s by far the most important one for me. In most industries (including startup world), things work like this: when things are going well, you have a ton of people contacting you and it feels like you’re the most popular person ever. But when things are going badly, no one wants to talk and you feel like an outcast.

The good news is that relationships with your true friends and family don’t change when things are going great or when things are going terribly. They will be there for you. This is why it’s so important to not let your relationships die out of laziness or lack of time – something that happens too often. Friends and family are your mental safety net. When I’m having a crappy day, nothing cheers me up more than gchatting/texting/Snapchatting with friends or having a long phone conversation with my mom, dad, and brother. Invest time in your relationships and you’ll never feel alone.

 

Lastly, I just want to say that having struggled with some of these issues myself in the past, I’m always here if someone needs to talk or get things off their chest.